The Egyptian “Alphabet” of Birds

Category: Ancient Learning > Writing Systems

1 Introduction

Ancient Egyptian writing is famously complicated, and only became alphabetic in a strict sense when the ancient scripts were abandoned in favor of the Greek alphabet, expanded by a few additional signs and thereby constituting the Coptic Alphabet. But already some centuries before this, as has come to light from the 1990s on, the Egyptians adopted an “alphabetical” ordering of 25 consonant sounds, which could be used to structure lists of words even in the absence of a one-to-one correpondance between sounds and signs.

This set of 25 sounds or letters was known to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, who gives the same number in On Isis and Osiris 374a. Plutarch also observes that the first letter is an ibis (Quaestiones conviviales 9.3.11). Both references long mystified Egyptologists, until relatively recent discoveries vindicated his claims: the first of the 25 sounds is h, and each sound was associated with a bird whose name begins with that sound, in this case hb, ‘ibis’ (see Joachim Quack, “Die spätägyptische Alphabetreihenfolge und das ‘südsemitische’ Alphabet”, in: LingAeg 11 [2003], 163–184).

2 The 25 sounds and the associated birds

Setting aside some variation, the order is as follows:

  1. hhb (𓅞), ‘sacred ibis’
  2. rrṭ
  3. mmnw, ‘dove’
  4. qqnw
  5. wwy
  6. ssmn(w)
  7. r
  8. bbnw, ‘phoenix/Bennu’
  9. t
  10. š
  11. kkymy
  12. nnry
  13. ẖry, rꜣ
  14. trꜣ
  15. ppꜥry
  16. ı͗
  17. ꜥnene
  18. g
  19. ṭrı͗
  20. yib
  21. ffy-st
  22. ḏḏ, ‘sparrow’
  23. ḳsn

[Translations, and perhaps some corrections, still to be entered.]

(The consonant ꜣ is not included in this schema.)

The bird names are taken from Karl-Th. Zauzich, “Ein antikes demotisches Namenbuch”, in: Joachim Quack (ed.), A Miscellany of Demotic Texts and Studies, 2000; and from François Gaudard, Le P. Berlin 8278 et ses fragments. Un « nouveau » texte démotique comprenant des noms de lettres (off-site link). The whole list of bird names is not yet known, but may become clear with future discoveries or further research.

3 Further connections

As Quack (cited above) has shown, the alphabetic order is not indigenous to Egypt, but borrowed from so-called South Semitic alphabetic order, by whatever path.
[I hope to expand on this topic in the future.]

As there is one Demotic text that further associates each sound with a plant and place name, Quack has suggested that this Egyptian alphabet influenced the composition of the Cyranides, a Greek book of talismans composed from the bird, plant, stone and fish associated with a given Greek letter.